Monday, August 18, 2008

a very beautiful reality

These pictures of my grandson, Tate, confirm for me what a beautiful world ours can be.

Two worlds to choose between

I stopped writing in this blog over a year ago. Too many words, and why add more. Well, just for me I guess I'm adding more.

Sally Quinn's column in today's Washington Post was about the realities created by words--specifically those of Obama and McCain. She would prefer to live in McCain's world, but chooses Obama's because his is closer to the real world we all live in. Mostly I agree with her sentiments, except that I choose Obama's world because it is so much more interesting than McCain's. McCain's world may be clearer, certainly starker. But so much less interesting than one alive with so many more possibilities. Both worlds are plenty dangerous, and I'll take the more interesting one any day. Otherwise this business is just too grim.

Sunday, July 15, 2007


Lately I have begun to cringe when I hear students and others say that they have researched a given subject. They mean, most of the time, that they have googled a subject and scanned the first page of returns to find answers to their queries. I cringe because I am more and more frequently guilty of the same careless kind of research. It is all so easy to get an answer.

This kind of feeble effort is a long way from research though. The Oxford English Dictionary provides this definition of research: "the systematic study of materials and sources in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions." That is a high standard, expecting a systematic approach that would insure a broad if not deep knowledge about a subject. And then the idea of facts, not opinions. One of the scariest questions I am asked by students who have just gotten a new writing assignment is, "You just want our opinion, right?" The idea seems to be to write what is now regularly called a "reaction paper." This is one by which we say whether we like something or not. That seems to be the end of research: find someone's writing that confirms what I already thought anyway. And so the idea of really finding the facts, and the more difficult need to reach new conclusions, never happens.

Andrew Keen has written a new book that seems, from my research, mostly disagreeable to me. He castigates the millions of bloggers, among others, for not being professional, and for failing the test of research. This presents a problem for me. I like the idea that I can say what I want on a blog, and it is true, my level of research is probably in decline. I haven't read his book and probably won't. The Technorati website had this as a banner a few weeks ago: "70 million blogs. Some of them have to be good." My instinct is to trust that it is better to let us all blather on, Mr. Keen, professional, as well as the rest of us. I'm hoping that this collective talk won't be the cause of the fall of western culture. I feel like I'm one of 300 million Americans, all of us standing on soapboxes in MacArthur Park. I'm hoping this random behavior among us all might lead to some good place we didn't know about before.

Thursday, July 12, 2007


I am listening to the president's news conference spinning his interpretation of the interim report to Congress on Iraq. His words make it clear: this president is utterly incapable of speaking to our whole nation in any meaningful way that might help to create new solutions in government.

One reason why he cannot communicate in this way seems to be that he is unable to think outside of preconceived and for the most part timeworn, hackneyed categories of thought. If he were to talk about this skill he would probably say something like "I know it's important to think outside the box." But by categorizing this important habit of thought as just one more cliche of our dreary lives he would be demonstrating his lack of preparation to be president.

Really, to be president we need someone who has spent her or his lifetime preparing to think critically. The ability to do this requires a lifetime of hard intellectual work, an ethic lacking in and disdained by this president. He works hard enough when he rides his mountain bike or brushes at his ranch. But this isn't the kind of work we need in our president.

The consequence of Bush's intellectual laziness has been grave indeed. We are ruled by a fool who looks at the world and sees those who have a "dark vision" they want to impose on those who are "good people." Those with these dark visions need to be rubbed out. Of course, it is the president who decides whose vision is the dark one. Whoever becomes the next president, I have only one requirement: no ideologues need apply.

I have been reading David Halberstam's amazing book on the Vietnam War, The Best and the Brightest. The book is amazing because Halberstam depicts in compelling detail how the personal habits and personalities of the powerful can influence an entire national tragedy like the Vietnam War or, by extrapolation, the Iraq War. The Kennedy administration was ignorant when it came into power, but some in the administration, President Kennedy among them, were open to learning. And they did learn. Averill Harriman was the archetype of this kind of effective and useful public servant. Unfortunately, there are few Harrimans in the Bush administration.

One of the last things President Bush asserted at the end of today's press conference was his often expressed nostrum that he will act on principle and not on politics. Could we please have a president who believes in politics (real politics, not the debased Rovian version we have been infected with for too many years), who is willing and able to recognize that there are competing visions of the good life and that the role of politics in a democracy is to sort out those competing visions and use language to help make compromises among them? But we need someone who is not only smart (ok, Bush is probably smart enough) but who has taken the time to learn something well (I don't think it matters what field) and who can apply the rigor of whatever study to the complex task of being the president of all of us? Why should we be shocked that the Maliki government can't make compromises when our president disdains compromise?

He has become a truly frightening person--still in command of great power, but obviously unable to see or understand the world in any way that might help make a new peace. I pray that Congress grows enough backbone to act before the president is allowed to damage our nation and the world any further. Even the rhythm of his language is scary--one short, declarative, all-knowing sentence after the next.

I went to look at images illustrating this news conference. This is the photograph that National Public Radio chose to use to illustrate Bush's interpretation of a report that tells a story of failure. The soldiers are Iraqi cadets in training. It is the only one used to illustrate the news conference. What are they thinking, I wonder?

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

the last lone ranger

What would this man have to do in order that all good people, democrats, republicans, and independents, might join together to impeach him? He has engineered a slow, lingering coup d'etat and we seem incapable of recognizing what has happened to us and to this flawed but potentially great democracy. Why isn't there a 200 million person march on Washington to send this evil-doer out-- not out of George W. Bush's government but out of our government? This photo was published in today's Washington Post as part of the sobering series by Barton Gellman and Jo Becker on the excesses of power of Vice President Richard B. Cheney.

Friday, June 22, 2007

borders and fences

We spend our energies reinforcing and reinterpreting borders. The relationship between Palestine and Israel. The Berlin Wall. White and colored. The Latino curtain being built on our southern border. Darfur and Sudan. National Parks that preserve the wild and unrestrained commercial development around them. Christians and Muslims. Terrorists (them) and moderates (us). There is substantial archaeological evidence that we are all one people, and we work harder to build fences between us and those we see as different.

In Long Prairie, a small town less than an hour south of us, a business has a large sign in its window admonishing us to "Stop the Invasion." At first, I thought it might be referring to our invasion of Iraq. Then I read the smaller print: stop the invasion of Hispanics from Mexico. The small town of Long Prairie is now 25% Latino, mostly folks from Michoacan who have come to work in the meat processing businesses of the area. But as far as that business owner can see, we're in a war here at home. Even though Long Prairie would be dying if it weren't for the new immigrants.

Vice-president Cheney is making new apartheids too. He has now relocated his office outside of the executive branch of government. We need a fourth branch now, after more than two and a quarter centuries without. So he imagines another border and builds another fence.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

'Tis a muddle, and that’s aw.’

Seymour M. Hersh's series of articles in the New Yorker outline the Iraq war we hear little about. His most recent story, "The General's Report," is about Major General Antonio M. Taguba and what happened to him after he investigated, wrote, and submitted his March 2004 report describing the terrible happenings at Abu Ghraib. One story related by Hersh is especially revealing.

The day before Secretary Rumsfeld was to testify before the Senate in May, 2004, General Taguba was called to a meeting with the Secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, Stephen Gambone, General Myers, and General Schoomaker and others. When Taguba entered the room, Secretary Rumsfeld mocked him, saying "Here . . . comes . . . that famous General Taguba--of the Taguba report!"

This story of Rumsfeld's mockery of an honest person who has completed a difficult job embodies the entire muddle of this awful war. Taguba told the truth, certainly one of the most difficult of tasks in Rumsfeld's Defense Department. Taguba was stunned at the reception he received, and he told Hersh that he had believed that everyone at Defense had wanted to know the truth of Abu Ghraib. Hersh's June 25th story is pretty plain, confirming the chain of information flow from Taguba's investigations beginning in January and then his March report. The information Taguba learned became known in the Pentagon and the White House possibly as early as January and almost certainly by March. Rumsfeld's testimony, denying any prior knowledge about Abu Ghraib, was given in May.

Monday, June 11, 2007

signs of the times

I was reading in Thinking with Type by Ellen Lupton recently. The author makes what was for me a really startling comment about how through their history books have been read for their meaning whereas electronic communications today are read for how we are able to use them. For the most part, this seems to be true in my experience.

That helps explain how short the shelf life of information on the web is. Use is closely tied to being up-to-date, and it seems that most communications on the web are headed toward a short life of usefulness, and after that they have little purpose remaining. There isn't much room on the internet for what Harold Bloom calls wisdom literature.

Ms. Lupton's book is most interesting, and useful too. The contents aren't organized in a linear progression from start to end but in an emulation of the web organization we are more and more used to.

death of the commons

Not exactly news, I guess, just one more way of life curtailed. The Washington Post reported this week on the plight of the Hadzabe people of the Yaeda Valley of Tanzania. These hunter-gatherer people are being threatened by a royal family member of the UAE who is leasing their ancient hunting lands from the Tanzanian government so that he can have an uncrowded hunting preserve for his private use. The Hadzabe people have been trying to get along in the changing world for the last many centuries, and they seem resigned to the inevitability of this unfair financial arrangement, but they wish that someone might have thought to ask them what they thought about the matter before it became a fact of their lives. Of course no one did ask them.

To say that I feel sick when I hear of unfairnesses like this doesn't adequately represent my feelings about the matter. In a far less significant level, I resent the dozens of no trespassing signs around my home place here in north-central Minnesota. Tiny insults visible every day remind of the values most important to us. So much, if not all, of the energies of the world seem to be spent on rounding up the resources of the earth, fencing them off from the people who once lived there, and then spending huge sums of people's lives and money guarding the fences. Now we're in the process of agreeing to build a new fence between us and the Republic of Mexico. And we have a similar very costly fence, with openings only for oil, between us and Iraq. And yes, I have a fence around my farm.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

rhetoric and Lizzie Palmer's "Remember Me" video

Two of the three great branches of classical learning are in eclipse, and rhetoric, the study that Cicero regarded as the greatest of the three, is perhaps the most neglected.

As the concluding story on the Fox Sunday talk show today Chris Wallace introduced Fox's "Power Play of the Week," high school student Lizzie Palmer's video-collage of still photographs of American soldiers titled Remember Me. Ms. Palmer's point seems heartfelt to me: remember and respect the service and sacrifice of American soldiers. Her story seems to come directly out of her experience and strikes me as genuine. Ms. Palmer, Chris Wallace tells us, plans to enlist in the Army after high school.

Fox Sunday's motives in use of her video are more complicated. Brit Hume, William Kristol, and Chris Wallace are satisfied to play the video and let its message seemingly remain the heartfelt naive message of Ms. Palmer, to honor the individual efforts of American soldiers. But their primary motive is to require Americans' unquestioning, naive support for the war. Hume, Kristol, and Wallace have no interest in our understanding the war. Their rhetorical intent in showing this video without discussion at the end of the broadcast serves their ongoing purpose of encouraging American sentimental riding-into-the-sunset endorsement of the war. We can't oppose the war on its merits because to do so would be to disrespect the American soldier.

Ms. Palmer's world view as an American teenager doesn't include Iraqi people who have suffered far greater losses in this war than Americans, and it doesn't include any assessment of the meaning of the war--how we got into it, why we are there, and whether we ought to be there. Our schools teach technical skills that allow her to make a very sophisticated video from a technical perspective but they are ill prepared to impart a similarly sophisticated view about the content of such a video, or its relationship to the audience, or what it tells us about its creator.

I accept Ms. Palmer's video as the naive expression of a young person who has powerful and authentic feelings but limited understanding and experience. Fox network's use of the same video for its continuing simplification of the meaning of this war is exploitative and disingenuous.